By Sarah Ruppenthal
When Claudia Garcia of Maui International Real Estate Services Inc. and Kris Musto of Coldwell Banker Island Properties concocted an idea to help Upcountry residents in need two-and-a-half years ago, they never expected it to grow into a full-fledged, community-driven effort that would impact the lives of more than 3,500 families.
Musto and Garcia are next-door neighbors and the co-creators of #MakawaoSTRONG, a pandemic-inspired effort that has since evolved into Upcountry Strong, now a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. Musto and Garcia came up with idea for #MakawaoSTRONG in the spring of 2020 after learning there were seniors in Makawao who needed food. The pair enlisted the help of two other neighbors, Francis Kamakaokalani and Jen Wood, and #MakawaoSTRONG made its official debut shortly thereafter.
The group’s inaugural event was a concert-slash-food drive for seniors living at Hale Mahaolu Eha in Makawao. After that, the group was invited to host a food drive during the 2020 Virtual Makawao Stampede on the Fourth of July. With the intention of supporting a locally owned business, they took the monetary donations they received that day to Pukalani Superette, where they purchased items for the food drive recipients. There, the group met with Pukalani Superette president Megan Nakashima, who wanted to contribute to the effort. Soon after, #MakawaoSTRONG and Pukalani Superette teamed up to create Upcountry Strong.
The new partnership coordinated its first food distribution event at Oskie Rice Arena in August of 2020. Since then, Upcountry Strong has held 15 events at the arena and has distributed more than 2,500 food boxes—equivalent to 50,000-plus pounds of food. The next distribution event is scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 17.
Upcountry Strong became a nonprofit in December of 2020 and four Realtors Association of Maui members now serve on its board of directors: Garcia, Musto, Maile Masada of Coldwell Banker Island Properties and Anne Barber of Maui International Real Estate Services Inc.
Being a part of Upcountry Strong, Musto said, “Has given me a way to express my gratitude to this community that I’ve lived in for over 25 years. I’ve always felt Upcountry Maui was a place where time stopped. We walked our kids to school, we spent countless weekends at our community parks, and it felt like everyone knew everyone and everyone took care of each other. It’s such a special community and I feel extremely blessed to be a part of it.”
Realtors Association of Maui members Kris Musto (far right) and Claudia Garcia (second from right) pose with neighbors and fellow Upcountry Strong board members Jen Wood and Francis Kamakaokalani at a food distribution event in 2020. To date, the nonprofit has and has distributed more than 50,000 pounds of food to more than 3,500 families.
Garcia says the nonprofit’s strength lies in the countless community members who have supported it over the past two-and-a-half years. “It [Upcountry Strong] was just a way of giving back. COVID slowed everything down, and after talking to a wonderful aunty living at Hale Mahaole Eha that was suffering, it became clear that there was an opportunity to show gratitude to our community, especially to our kupuna—the start was simple and a real grassroots story,” she said. “We were blessed with many great people to help and assist our vision. This community rocks and we really are stronger together.”
You can help Upcountry Strong continue its good work. The nonprofit recently launched its first annual silent auction fundraiser, called “The Angel Project,” which aims to raise $50,000 for staple food items such as meat, fresh vegetables, fruit, milk, and bread. Donations can be made via the Upcountry Strong Inc. Venmo account (@strong808) or mailed to Upcountry Strong, 196 South Makaleha Pl., Makawao, HI 96768. All donations will go directly to support the nonprofit’s efforts and are tax-deductible. A donation receipt will be provided.
For more information about Upcountry Strong or to inquire about The Angel Project or other donor opportunities, call (808) 870-0553, email email@example.com or visit www.facebook.com/upcountrystrong.
Do you know a Realtors Association of Maui member who should be recognized for their contributions to the community? If so, send your story idea to Sarah Ruppenthal at firstname.lastname@example.org.